By MICHAEL ROMANO
It's all relative in Little Falls, Minn.
When Drs. Heather and Christopher Bell joined the medical staff at CHI St. Gabriel's Hospital in Little Falls, Minn., three years ago, their status as a young married couple practicing medicine together was not unique, or even out of the ordinary in this small farming community.
Drs. Heather and Christopher Bell are one of three sets of physician spouses working for the Family Medical Center, part of CHI St. Gabriel's Hospital in Little Falls, Minn.
That in itself is something out of the ordinary.
After all, what are the odds that two young doctors, straight out of a three-year residency program in family practice, would choose to join the staff of a 25-bed hospital in a rural town of about 8,300 located in the geographic center of Minnesota?
Yet, when the Bells arrived in August of 2012 to join the aptly named Family Medical Center, housed in one wing of the three-story brick hospital building, they became the third set of physician-spouses currently employed at the Family Medical Center — or about half the total of all family practice doctors who work at the hospital.
What's more, Christopher's mother, Dr. Julie Bell, has worked at the Family Medical Center since 1995; and Dr. Thomas Stoy, who joined the staff in 1986, teamed for several years with his father, Robert, until the elder Stoy retired around 1990.
"It just seemed like a pretty natural fit for us," said Chris, whose return was a happy homecoming for the former star athlete at Little Falls Community High School. "We're all just down the hallway in the same building, but we're all busy with our own patients, so we don't really spend a lot of time together at work."
Added Heather: "You know, the truth is we hardly see each other during the day."
The addition of a third married couple to the Family Medical Center clan was something of a natural process for the close-knit community, said Lee Boyles, the president of CHI St. Gabriel's, which is part of Englewood, Colo.-based Catholic Health Initiatives. Trailing only the Minnesota National Guard's Camp Ripley Training Base as the top employer in Morrison County, the hospital has other married, nonphysician couples serving in various capacities in areas such as mission, supply and communications.
"I'm sure there's a lot of husband-wife physicians out there across the country," said Boyles. "But the fact that we have so many of them, under one roof, is actually a little surprising — and pretty special. I think the community appreciates this too. They're all very active. And they all have a real connection to this community." (For instance: Julie Bell "moonlights" as the head coach of the Little Falls Community High School soccer team.)
The Bells, like Chris's mother, participated in the University of Minnesota Medical School's Rural Physician Associate Program, which was created in the late 1960s at a time when hospitals in tiny communities across the state were having considerable difficulty attracting young physicians. Of the 1,400 men and women who have completed a program that encompasses the third year of medical school, about 50 percent now practice in rural communities — many of them in Minnesota, said Dr. Kathleen Brooks, who oversees the program as the university's associate professor of family medicine and community health.
"It's a really rich experience for the students, with a lot of hands-on experience in small communities, said Brooks. "As third-year students, they become an important part of the health care team and work directly with patients. They see patients multiple times in different settings. It's an opportunity to really understand caring for patients in that broader context.
"The program has been very impactful in terms of helping to shore up the workforce for so many small hospitals across the state," she added.
In fact, the program for rural physicians has been vitally important to many communities across Minnesota, but few more so than in Little Falls, the boyhood home of Charles A. Lindbergh and the site of the Minnesota Fishing Museum, where the treasured collection of "10,000 fishing artifacts" chart a history of the state's most popular outdoor pastime.
Anatomy of a career choice
The Bells, both 32 years old, are among nine of the 13 physicians at Family Medical Center who participated in the university's program for rural physicians, an experience that helped guide them to family practice, primary care medicine — and a life in rural Minnesota.
Dr. Christopher Bell converses with a patient.
Chris Bell said he was convinced he wanted to be a doctor when he was "five or six." He was too sick to go to elementary school one day, so his mother — attending medical school at the time — took him along to one of her anatomy classes. The students were dissecting brains. He thought that was pretty cool. "I can't tell you what I liked about it, exactly," he said, "but it's something I vividly remember."
Chris and Heather met in the summer of 2005, during their first week of medical school at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, which had such a small freshman class — only about 50 students — that the future doctors were all pretty much forced to spend time together. "You get to know everybody pretty quickly," said Heather.
They spent their third year in the rural-physician program in Owatonna, a town an hour's drive straight south of Minneapolis that has about three times the population of Little Falls, and were married in the fall of 2008. After graduating from medical school, the two young doctors spent three years in a family practice residency program in Sioux Falls, S.D.
With perhaps a little guidance from the family matriarch, the Bells settled into familiar territory in Little Falls, where Chris had excelled as a three-sport star at the local high school and can now spend lots of quality time with his mother, father Steve and three brothers. It was such familiar territory, in fact, that he already knew its two other married physician couples — Drs. Lisa and Peter Germscheid, and Drs. Stephanie and Ryan Kray, all family physicians and all participants in the university's rural-physician program.
"Darned near half the doctors had gone through the Sioux Falls residency program," said Chris. "It seemed like a good place to work. I knew most of the doctors — and my mother was there."
Dr. Julie Bell, second from right, works with her physician son, Christopher Bell, and physician daughter-in-law, Heather Bell, at the Family Medical Center. Here she visits with a family at the center.
It's also a collegial group of physicians who are friendly compatriots in and out of the office, said Pat Rioux, the hospital's longtime communication and marketing director whose wife, Cheryl, is employed by parent CHI as a divisional informational technology officer. "Physicians and their relationships with their fellow physicians can be difficult sometimes," Rioux said. "Almost always, in a practice of about 20 doctors, you'll find one knucklehead! That's not the case here. Friendly, normal, good people."
Born and reared in a suburb of metropolitan St. Paul, Minn., Heather was a little anxious about small-town life at first, but she settled in quickly.
"I'd never lived in a town this small, so I anticipated it being a little challenging," Heather said. "But it's a wonderful community, and everyone's comfortable. We have lots of group activities with the kids, and we have our in-laws to help us on pretty much a daily basis — that makes a big difference."
Heather and Chris have three children — sons Isaac, 5, and Emmitt, 3, and daughter Kilie, born in January.
While they may not spend a lot of time together during their hectic days of seeing steady streams of patients at the Family Medical Center, the Bell family bond was strengthened even further after Chris was diagnosed in the fall of 2013 with a brain tumor. His successful surgery took place on his birthday. The result was a joyous celebration of life and a renewed sense of the importance of personal and professional proximity for the entire family.
"I'm so grateful to see him every day," said Julie Bell. "I thank God for his successful recovery, and I cherish every moment. To be able to see Chris and Heather every day — and talk to them every day — makes it all the better. And, of course, I also get to be a proud mother."
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